The life of Jesus begins with Mary. Therefore, it is appropriate that we begin the New Year with a Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. Since Mary is the Mother of God she is the mother of joy, joy to the world. So the traditional greeting on this first day of the New Year is one of joy: Happy New Year!
Happy New Year! How many times did you hear that today? How many times did you give that same greeting to others? Was it just a conventional greeting or was it a real wish? In other words is it really possible to find happiness in the New Year?
It would be a mistake, of course, to expect perfect happiness this year or any year in this life. This innate, insatiable drive we all have for perfect happiness can only be satisfied in the next life. As St. Augustine said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” But there is a deep, lasting peace that everyone can have in this life.
It would also be a mistake also to identify happiness with pleasure. Pleasure and happiness are not synonyms. They are not one and the same thing. In fact, pleasure can be the cause of very great unhappiness. How much unhappiness has been caused by the pleasure of alcohol, heroin or crack cocaine? Perhaps nothing has caused as much unhappiness to as many people as the pleasure of adultery.
It would be a mistake also to think that happiness consists in amassing possessions. If things could make people happy, Americans would be the happiest people in the world. We have more things than any other generation. Unfortunately we begin by possessing things and end up with things possessing us. It is the desire, the craving for things we do not have that causes so much unhappiness. We are supposed to love people and use things. In our affluent society we turn that around and love things and use people to get the things we love.
It would be a mistake also to think that we can find happiness by seeking it. This is the great American pursuit, the “great American dream.” The Declaration of Independence guarantees every American the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Get the picture of someone going around with a Geiger counter looking for happiness. The fact of the matter is, the moment you seek it you lose it. Happiness is always a by-product, green stamps, lagniappe.
But what is happiness a by-product of? What is it that has happiness as a side effect? The answer is to be found in Bethlehem. Let us go to Bethlehem to see what it is. Look into the cave. Take your eyes away from the beautiful babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger and look around. There is none of those things in which we seek happiness. There is no riches, no fame, no power, no conveniences, no pleasure, nothing but an empty, cold cave on the outskirts of town.
Now look at Mary and Joseph kneeling before the manger. They must be tired. They have traveled 75 miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot and on the jolting back of a donkey. They must be very hungry. They haven’t had a real meal since they left Nazareth some 3 days ago. They must be cold in this damp cave in the midst of winter. It must have been very humiliating for them to discover no room among their relatives in their ancestral home or at the village Inn.
Yet in the midst of all of this, Mary and Joseph are the happiest people to walk the face of this earth. Here in Bethlehem they are teaching us the amazing paradox that it is only when we lose ourselves in the love and service of Jesus do we find happiness. Happiness that this world can never give and no one can take from us. But how can we lose ourselves in the love and service of Jesus? Jesus has made it very simple, “Whatever you do for one of these least brethren you do for me.”
So on this first day of the New Year let us ask for the grace to know Jesus more intimately, love him more ardently and follow him more closely so that this may be a truly Happy New Year!